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Local News

County Wades Into Goleta West Sanitary District Battle

Three-way tug of war over revenue emerges as critical issue

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to initiate property tax negotiations on behalf of the Goleta West Sanitary District with regards to a proposed detachment filed by the city of Goleta. The mandatory negotiations are required as part of the detachment process, but the city and the special district are not required to come to any agreement within the 60 days allotted for the negotiations.

Even as they went ahead with the mandatory procedure, however, supervisors were directing staff to provide more information on the effects of such a detachment, if done by the county.

“I don’t know how to provide any direction ... because I don’t have enough information,” said 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr, who asked for more details about the cost of taking over the operations and maintaining the infrastructure in the service area, which lies within her district. Other supervisors echoed her request for more information on the complicated process.

Goleta in February applied to the Local Agency Formation Commission for a detachment of its property within the Goleta West Sanitary District, which handles wastewater and street sweeping in the Goleta Valley from Los Carneros Road to as far west as the Embarcadero Municipal Improvements District in Winchester Canyon. Responsibility for wastewater collection and street sweeping would shift to the city, leaving the rest of the district in pockets like Isla Vista and areas north and west of city boundaries.

About 52 percent of the district’s coverage area and effluent would become the city’s responsibility, and 78 percent of the total assessed valuation.

The sanitary district vehemently opposes such a detachment, saying the city is only after the revenue the district generates through a combination of Proposition 13 property taxes and fees charged to ratepayers. It has raised about $30 million in reserves.

“It sounds like a lot of money until you realize that we’re facing a massive expenditure in the Goleta Valley when it comes to wastewater treatment,” said GWSD counsel Steve Amerikaner, pointing out the upcoming expense of paying for upgrades at the facilities it shares with the Goleta Sanitary District, which handles the rest of wastewater collection in the city.

The funds from the reserves are already fully committed, Amerikaner said. The district has been able to charge $14 a month for services in its area, as opposed to other sanitation operations which can charge twice, even three times that amount.

The city, meanwhile, has said its move to withdraw from the district is motivated at least in part by the protection it can give to GWSD funds that could be subject to revenue raids by Sacramento. City officials also say that because of the district’s unique situation with Prop. 13 taxes, other parts of the city are actually subsidizing the GWSD ratepayers.

Another factor in the situation is Goleta’s Revenue-Neutrality Agreement, which requires a certain percentage in taxes to go to the county as a condition of the city’s 2002 incorporation.

For the district, yet another complication would be the possible detachment of the balance of the district by the county, so that the county would have to take over operations within its jurisdiction.

“It’s about money,” said Amerikaner, who argued that the county’s takeover of sewer and street sweeping services from the GWSD “does not solve (the county’s) fiscal migraine.” By GWSD calculations, the county, after property taxes received and costs it would have to assume, would be left with a $3.4 million bill it would still have to cover.

At least one member of the board seemed to be leaning away from the idea of the county’s withdrawal.

“I don’t think that we as a county ought to be taking on the burdens of another sewer plant,” said 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno.

The district and the county have set a tentative meeting Monday to begin working on their negotiations with the city of Goleta.

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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